Poll Shows Iraqis Weary of Violence, US Presence

Iraqis – especially the majority Shi’ites – are increasingly angry and frustrated about their situation and impatient for U.S. troops to leave, but most do not believe their country will fall apart, according to a major new poll [.pdf] released here Wednesday by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA).

Seventy-one percent of the 1,150 randomly selected respondents interviewed for the survey in early September said they wanted all U.S. and coalition forces to leave Iraq within the next year, with more than half of them calling for the withdrawal to be completed within six months.

Moreover, nearly four in five respondents said they believed that the U.S. military in Iraq is "provoking more conflict than it is preventing," while nearly 61 percent said they approved of attacks on U.S.-led forces, an increase of 14 percent compared to the last PIPA survey of Iraqi public opinion eight months ago.

Among the three main communal groups – Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds – the biggest jump in negative opinion toward U.S. forces came from the Shi’ites, who comprise roughly 60 percent of the Iraq’s population.

Nearly two of every three Shi’ites said they approved of attacks on U.S.-led forces, compared to 41 percent last January, just after a coalition of Shi’ite parties swept to victory in parliamentary elections. At that time, only 22 percent of Shia respondents favored a U.S. withdrawal within six months. The percentage has now risen to 36 percent, according to the PIPA poll.

The new survey, which to some extent mirrors the reported findings of a State Department-commissioned poll leaked to the Washington Post Wednesday, comes amid intensifying debate between most Democrats who favor setting a timeline for withdrawing forces and President George W. Bush and Republican loyalists who say that such a strategy would invite disaster.

That debate has been fueled in recent days by the disclosure of a classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) – the consensus position of Washington’s 16 national intelligence agencies. Among other conclusions, it found that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq have become a "cause celebre" for jihadists worldwide and fueled the growth and spread of terrorism and Islamic radicalism.

The administration, which was forced to declassify parts of the NIE under pressure from Democrats Tuesday, has also acknowledged that another NIE on Iraq – a draft version of which was described as "grim" by one source – is under preparation.

But the White House said it is not scheduled for completion until January, a timetable that has provoked protests from Democrats who believe that its conclusions are almost certain to stoke public anger here with the Iraq war and, if released before the elections, help them win control of at least one house of Congress.

The State Department poll, which was conducted from late June to early July, reportedly found that majorities of respondents in all regions of Iraq, except Kurdistan, said that the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces would "make them feel safer and decrease violence" and that nearly two out of three respondents favored an immediate departure.

The 71 percent majority who told PIPA they want a withdrawal within one year underlined a "growing sense of urgency" on the part of Iraqis, according to PIPA director Steven Kull, who noted that last January, 70 percent of respondents said they favored withdrawal within two years.

The only group that shows less eagerness for the military to leave are Sunnis, who comprise about 20 percent of the total population and have been most resistant to the U.S. occupation and unhappy with the Shia-dominated government. The percentage of Sunnis who favor withdrawal within six months has dropped from 83 percent to 57 percent, although nine in 10 Sunnis still say they want U.S. troops out within a year.

Four out of five Iraqis – including 96 percent of Sunnis and 87 percent of Shi’ites – say that the U.S. is having a negative influence on the situation in Iraq, according to the poll, which found that Kurds still believe Washington’s influence is positive by a 48-34 percent margin.

If, as most Democrats have urged, the U.S. made a commitment to withdraw from Iraq according to a specific timeline, 53 percent of respondents said they believed that would strengthen the Iraqi government, as opposed to only 23 percent who said they though it have the opposite effect.

"Basically, because U.S. forces are there, the Iraqi government doesn’t really have the legitimacy it might have," suggested Kull, who noted growing confidence, particularly on the part of Shi’ites, that Iraqi security forces will have become strong enough within the next six months to handle security challenges on their own.

Growing impatience with the U.S. military presence was also reflected in the strong approval among both Sunnis and Shi’ites for attacks on U.S.-led forces, which Kull called "the most disturbing finding" of the new survey.

If, however, the U.S. made a commitment to withdraw its troops according to a timetable, support for attacks would diminish, the poll found. Nearly half of Sunnis and Shi’ites who said they support attacks said they would feel less supportive if such a commitment were made.

A major problem, however, is nearly four in five Iraqis believe that Washington won’t withdraw its troops because it plans to have permanent military bases in Iraq. The same percentage also believes that even if the Iraqi government demanded that U.S. forces withdraw, Washington would not comply.

(Coincidentally and largely at the initiative of Democratic lawmakers, Congress is expected to approve a ban this week on the expenditure of any money appropriated for next year’s defense budget for the purpose of building permanent bases in Iraq.)

Kull suggested that Iraqi skepticism about U.S. intentions may be behind the overwhelming approval among both Sunnis and Shi’ites for attacks on U.S. forces.

The poll uncovered no evidence, he said, for an ideological or related motive. Indeed, the survey found that views of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were remarkably negative. While nearly 100 percent of Shi’ite and Kurdish respondents expressed unfavorable views of both, three out of four Sunnis agreed with them.

Nonetheless, disillusionment and anger with the situation in Iraq has clearly grown, according to the survey. Fifty-two percent of all respondents now believe that the country is going in the "wrong direction" – up from 35 percent as recently as last June.

Among Shi’ites, a majority of 59 percent still believe it is going in the "right direction," but that is down from 84 percent in January. While the decline in optimism among Kurds has not been quite as sharp, Sunnis remain as deeply pessimistic as in January when 93 percent said the country was headed in the "wrong direction."

"The trend is a very poor one," said Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "There is no question that Iraqis are ever more frustrated and angry with the United States."

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.